Episode 2: Film, TV and Media Lawyer Caroline Verge

CAROLINE VERGE

THE BRIEF

SAMARA JONES (FAME Careers and Sponsorship Coordinator): Hello and welcome to the FAME Law Students’ Associations’ podcast: The Brief. For the uninitiated, FAME stands for Film, Art, Media, and Entertainment. FAME LSA is a group of students from Melbourne Law School who are passionate about the arts and culture. In this podcast series we chat with the lawyers and artists working in the creative industries, learning about their daily work, career development and topical issues facing the industry. 

In today’s episode, FAME ambassador Leah Alysandratos interviewed the highly influential and experienced film and TV lawyer, Caroline Verge, principal of Verge, Whitford & Co. Caroline shared with us what led her to the law, her experience with Women in Film and Television Australia, and her thoughts on how the film and TV landscape may look moving on from 2020, plus many excellent career tips for budding film, television, and multimedia lawyers. We hope you enjoy it. 

LEAH ALYSANDRATOS(FAME Ambassador): Thank you so much for joining us today, Caroline, it’s really lovely to have you here with us. 

CAROLINE VERGE: It’s my pleasure. 

LEAH: I guess we’ll get straight into it. So, the first thing I just wanted to ask you was what drew you to practicing law and specifically practicing in film, television and multimedia law?

CAROLINE: Well, when I was at school, the choices just really weren’t available. So, if you were good at reading and writing, you basically did law. And you know, if you’re good at maths and science, you did medicine. So I didn’t have much of an option – and I made my decision probably in late primary school and just never changed it because there was never anything that appealed to me.

And I had lawyers in my family, so I just took it from there. And as for film and television, that was complete chance – I was working at the Australian Government Solicitor doing proceeds of crime and insolvency and some tax work, and I helped my boss hang some paintings one day – so when an arts organization asked for someone to be posted there, he went “oh, I’ve got just the person: Caroline.”

And he sent me down and I was actually shocked in the beginning because I thought there was no world outside the Supreme and Federal Court, but I ended up enjoying it. I liked the people and I picked up related clients like SBS and the Australian Tourist Commission. So I spent a couple of years doing that and then I got a job as manager of copyright at ABC Television. That really, I guess, cemented me on that trajectory because after that I went to the Australian Film Commission – and I don’t know if you know, but in your career you’ll have one or two jobs that are just dream jobs – 

LEAH: Yeah. 

CAROLINE: and the Australian Film Commission job was one of my dream jobs.

LEAH: Wow. Yeah. And it really just fell in your lap in that way? You just sort of thought – this is the way my destiny’s been carved out since I was in primary school. This is what’s been handed to me and wow, that’s a dream. I didn’t even know that was there. That’s a really lovely story. 

CAROLINE: Yeah. Well, let me say one other thing, which is that, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter what you specialize in, when you become good at something, you just enjoy it and you stay on that path. So when I was doing insolvency, you know, I really liked insolvency and I was very comfortable with my court work and I knew the Act and the regulations – and so it doesn’t have to be something that you think you’re going to love.

I would suggest just if you’re offered some specialty, sometimes just give it a go. Yeah. And see what you feel about it – 

LEAH: It’s like that old adage where they say work isn’t work if you love it or something like that, something like that. And that really ties in here. 

CAROLINE: True. 

LEAH: That’s really, really interesting.

So, given that you have such experience in in-house organizations like ABC and the Australian Film Commission, would you have any suggestions for the students listening hoping to work as in house lawyers in the film industry?

CAROLINE: I strongly suggest that you get general experience first. When you go in-house, you think that you’re going in as… well, for example, when I went to the Australian Film Commission, I was the film development lawyer. So I was purely employed to do grants and investments in film development and production. However, when people see a lawyer there, they will ask you a wide range of questions and you need to have the confidence to take charge of answering those questions, or, I mean, you can always brief out, but you need to be on top of a lot of things.

So I suggest have some general experience before you go in-house, then you’ll find that you need to be a bit cautious about too strongly identifying with you or the company that’s engaging you or the organization that’s employed you. You need to always remember that you are a lawyer and you have a duty to the courts.

LEAH: Yes…

CAROLINE: So you can’t just basically become more of a business affairs person, you have to maintain that legal distance. Having said that – being in-house is a wonderful, wonderful career opportunity. It’s so fabulous not having to do timesheets and it is wonderful, it’s fantastic to really become so familiar with the client’s business and structure and goals. 

LEAH: Yeah. So I guess there’s a really good insight there in the sense that people will see you as a lawyer before they see you as a specialized lawyer. 

CAROLINE: In a way – they expect you to know your specialty, but they will also just ask you incidental questions. For example, when at the Australian Film Commission, I ended up taking on the role of FOI officer (you know, Freedom of Information) because, well, nobody else wanted to do it, but they just assumed that I would be able to do it.

LEAH: Because you’re a lawyer.

CAROLINE: Yeah, that’s it. And people would ask you about their wills, which was not part of the job at all, but you need to be able to give a reasonable answer to a lot of questions so that people maintain the confidence in you. A lot of what we do is appearing on top of things, funnily enough. 

LEAH: Yeah. That’s a… that’d be a really hard balance to find, especially where they’re asking you questions not within your allocated job – but in order to maintain that relationship, you sort of have to find a way to, like you said, to maintain their confidence, that’s really… I’d never thought of it like that before, actually.

CAROLINE: And you also need to be careful because if you give legal advice, you need to be insured for it. There’s lots of things to think about. 

LEAH: Yeah. Well, well I guess that ties into the next question – to be a successful lawyer working in the film and television industry, not only would you be able to have to answer those difficult questions and maintain those relationships, but there are probably many other essential skills and qualities you need. What would you consider those to be? 

CAROLINE: One of the key changes in my personality that I had to work on when I left litigation and went into commercial work (film and TV) was that in litigation you win or lose. And I had a very strong mentality of needing to win – and I actually went to Harvard and did Roger Fisher’s negotiation course – 

LEAH: Wow. 

CAROLINE: and it took a while to sink in, but it really changed my personality a lot because in film, the deal is important, but you have to keep an eye on the ultimate goal which is to make a project. 

LEAH: Yeah. 

CAROLINE: And I have seen projects fall apart because the lawyers started jiggling it 10 paces. And you, and you say stop, you know, is that really critical to get this film made?

The other thing that’s important is that the Australian film industry is pretty small and you have to be careful not to burn your bridges, and sometimes a strategic retreat is more important than a victory on every point. 

LEAH: Yeah. Keeping that wide, wide lens perspective of everything going on. 

CAROLINE: Yeah, exactly, that’s a great way of putting it. 

And I guess another essential quality rather than a skill is to maintain your integrity. I’m not saying that lawyers don’t have integrity – but in the film industry in particular, a lot of our money comes from taxpayers. So you have to be completely transparent. And sometimes people say: ‘Oh, let’s just do a side letter about this aspect of a transaction.’

And you have to say, yes, we can do a side letter, but we’d have to disclose it to all the other parties or in particular, the agencies that are investing taxpayer money. So complete transparency.

LEAH: Integrity, particularly professionally as well as personally, because he can’t have it either way. You’ve got to be the person, the right person for the job, both in yourself as well as as a lawyer. So that’s a really great piece of advice I think for a lot of people listening: not to forget who you are as a lawyer and on your own.

And I guess continuing on the talk about the industry, the film and television industry, as we know it has been disrupted by this current pandemic, we knew this question was coming, and we are seeing signs within the industry of working within a COVID normal, we’re seeing a lot of movies being made with social distancing and things like that.

How do you see this landscape adapting as we keep moving forward? 

CAROLINE: I think a lot of scripted projects are going to be forced out – smaller budget scripted projects. The reason is that the bigger production companies, you know, your Matchboxes, can self-insure – they can continue production even without COVID insurance, but with the smaller production companies that can’t afford to self-insure they’re going to be reliant on the Screen Australia TIF fund.

And that is a wonderful initiative of Screen Australia’s and I think everybody’s really happy with it. However, it is selective. So it’s another hurdle to get through. And, you know, we know that Screen Australia doesn’t really like horror movies and they’re quite often the ones that break out. So I think a lot of, as I say, drama projects might be forced to at least defer the start of production. 

LEAH: Yeah. 

CAROLINE: I think that there’ll be more feature docs and archival projects because they’re easy to pull together, even, you know, with social distancing. I have some clients who are doing an interesting thing where one of them lives in New South Wales and one lives in Western Australia – and they’ve had a script written and they’re going to do it online. 

LEAH: Wow

CAROLINE: So it should be great. 

LEAH: That’s really different.

CAROLINE: And so clever over them to just create work for themselves. 

LEAH: That’s definitely what you would call adapting. 

CAROLINE: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. 

LEAH: That would encourage different genres to come out more than others that didn’t come to mind at all.

CAROLINE: Well you’ve got to be clever. You’ve got to always be thinking… these two are actually very, really smart operators. And the other thing that I see as a big issue with COVID, although it’s slightly more of an umbrella issue, is that I think the Australian Content Standard is at risk. We were hoping that the Pay TV channels would start to be, you know, required to maintain a minimum level of Australian first run drama and documentary but now I think even the free to air broadcast is probably going to start lobbying really hard to get the Content Standard pulled back, which is terrible for Australian content. 

LEAH: So the integrity of the standard is really at risk here. 

CAROLINE: Yeah, I think so, because it’s much more expensive obviously to invest in first run Australian programming than to pick up programming from overseas or, you know, second cycle programs, they’re so much cheaper – why wouldn’t you, if you have to report to the shareholders. And particularly now that some of them – the media organizations – are owned by hedge funds. Well, they have no sort of deep support of the Australian film and television industry. So why wouldn’t they just be looking at the profit margin? 

LEAH: Of course. That makes a lot of sense. And I guess that ties into the next question where I was just going to ask you what other legal concerns do we need to be aware of or, you know, for the industry right now, or even lessons that lawyers such as yourself have learned about this experience. So just continuing on, what other concerns did you have? 

CAROLINE: Well, I think my key comment rather than a concern is that features are still treated as the premier format, and yet theatrical features just aren’t cutting it. 

Until recently you had quite a long period: a theatrical window – so you’d release a film theatrically, and then you might have 180 days before the next window opened, which might be TV, and then you’d have a window, and then you’d have home video open. And that could somehow, even though the feature never made its money with theatrical exhibition, it could create a word of mouth, but that’s really largely gone, I think, or going and going quite quickly and the windows have collapsed. So you can quite often now have something released in the cinema and also released online.

LEAH: Yeah. It’s almost less about that release experience and just more about having that straightaway access to the artwork or the project/the ease of it, I think, especially with new streaming platforms, which is not even new anymore, but Netflix and Stan, there are more coming out and we’re seeing advertisements on television. People want easy and quick and cheap and it does compromise the integrity of that whole theatrical release. 

CAROLINE: It does people, and have such big TVs now, it’s enormous, and you can get big, you can go to 80 inches, but, I haven’t been brought up in it. I don’t like anything better than sitting in a dark cinema. And you know when the curtains just go a little wider, the ads have finished and the movie starting – I get that excitement every time, I just love it real when the lights dim and the curtains open a little bit.

But now, uh, people don’t seem to have that. And in fact, I’ve noticed that people talk through a movie now. Whereas you never used to have that. You’d always be completely quiet as soon as the film started, but people don’t actually realize that they’re not in their living rooms. So I think that’s the big change and I can’t tell you how it’s going to play out.

But I do know that I’m working on some fantastic television – and I think funding should really perhaps change more towards TV. And I guess online, well.

LEAH: I guess, I guess we don’t know yet. We’ll have to see, but I do agree with you that, that whole… there’s been a dissolve in the interest of that theatrical experience in the mainstream consumer market for film and it’s gone towards the whole aspect of – I can have a theater experience at home on my couch, in my own comfort with my bathroom right there, why wouldn’t I just do that? So there’s definitely a big shift there and it was almost like COVID-19 has encouraged it because we don’t have any option to otherwise.

CAROLINE: And the other thing that I think needs further attention – and anyone that knows me will tell you this is my complete hobby horse and I’ve been on about this for years – and that is that we need racially blind casting. Instead of having, you know, the doctor played by a white woman, what would it matter if it was played by a Chinese man, or if your race is irrelevant to the script, then it shouldn’t be a part of the casting.

LEAH: I agree with you 110% here. Yup. There is absolutely no need for it anywhere – racial stereotyping in casting at the moment. I don’t understand why it’s there. 

CAROLINE: It’s subconscious bias still, and you look at people complain about SBS because they’re having you know, white, Anglo-Saxon programming during peak viewing times now, and you go hang on, what was your remit again?

LEAH: Exactly. Exactly right. I guess that does tie into my next question ‘cause I wanted to ask you about gender equality in the Australian screen industry, because you actually were the Vice President of Women in Film and Television Australia. What stood out to you as the key barriers to gender equality? 

CAROLINE: I think I might need to update my bio, because I’m also now on the board of Dame Changers which is an organization for entry level filmmakers and enthusiasts. And they do a great job by creating a space for women in film, running the WOW festival each year, and in fact, the current WIFT in New South Wales is really impressive, and the things they do – putting out newsletters and bringing people together to find out what’s on – Dame Changers is a networking and mentoring organization for mid-career filmmakers, and mid-career is when there’s a real dropout zone for women. And I think what has… the barriers that have stood out for me are the same in all professions, to be honest, which is that, you know, women pull out to have children.

Film is high risk. There are long hours. You have to travel to go on set – it’s freelance. And it’s very hard for women to juggle all of that with kids, unless they have someone at home as so many men do. Well, one other point I would like to make there – and I don’t think it’s perhaps recognized enough – is that there’s a lot of work being done at the moment to promote gender equality above the line. Screen Australia has its gender equality goal of 50% female lead writer, director, producer in its projects – but there’s also a big issue below the line in the crew area. And there it’s really similar to just the ordinary trades where it can, they can be a bit of a boys club, you know, if a woman wants to be a grip, how does she access that as a possibility because she hasn’t gone to TAFE with a group of guys, and then they’ve all gone into the film industry, but maybe she has, and maybe that will happen more, but women traditionally don’t participate in trades. And that’s a big problem. And I think once you see more women below the line, do you know what I mean by that? 

LEAH: Yeah. And I totally agree. I totally understand what you’re saying. 

CAROLINE: Once you see more women below the line, they’ll create their own networks and there’ll be less unconscious bias.

LEAH: And just allowing women to work beyond the line, opening that opportunity then, and not letting them feel like it’s not an option. 

CAROLINE: I guess maybe there needs to be some attachment schemes that are geared towards women in those Crew positions. I know Screen West, well, the agencies all have crew attachments, but they don’t say, they don’t specify whether they have to be men or women.

One other thing, you know, you’ll know this as well as I do – I’ve mentored some young lawyers and women tend… no, it’s not that they don’t push themselves, but I think women see both sides of every story. So if, if a man sees a job and he thinks that looks interesting, I’ll go for it. And a woman, a woman will see a job advertised and we think that looks interesting, I don’t know if I’ve got all the qualifications for it. And it seems to be a real mental difference somehow in, I won’t say brain wiring because I’m sure it’s possible to train people out of it, but it is something I noticed very often in, well, in myself and then younger professional women. 

LEAH: Yeah. I understand what you’re talking about, because it’s an, it’s an easy feeling. Even someone like me coming out, going into a music degree or to a law degree, am I really cut out for this? Do I just take the chance? And you know, you got to try your best, not to scare yourself or intimidate yourself, but I can understand how that can still be a major playing issue here.

CAROLINE: Yeah. Yes. And then you get your dream job and you have imposter syndrome. 

LEAH: Yes, exactly. I always feel like I’m an imposter here. What am I doing in law school? What?  

I guess we should, we should just move on to some more lighthearted questions – I wanted to know what’s the film or project you’ve worked on that was especially memorable for you?

CAROLINE: Well, you know, I’ve been doing this since 1990. Yeah, so that there’s been a lot of programming under my belt. I’ve had some really terrible projects, so awful – let me say that if you’re in development and the co-producers are already arguing, or the producer and director are already arguing, walk away, it’s not gonna get any better.

LEAH: That’s, that’s probably the best piece of advice you can give to an up and coming production. That’s hilarious! 

CAROLINE: Yeah. Yeah. And then they come to you and they want you to be the mediator and I’ve actually – I am a mediator and I’ve done some film mediations, and everybody’s always so agreeable in the film industry that you have this wonderful honeymoon event where you spend a day nutting out the issues and then everyone goes, yeah, thank you. That’s great. Okay. It’s all fine now. 

It’s not, it never is – another one I wrote down was a film I worked on called Paper Planes. And it was such a pleasure because they’re a great team. It was a lovely project. It was a children’s film, which you don’t get nearly enough, and yet still a really interesting story. 

And it also had the contracting – this sounds a bit sad, but the contracting was really good and exciting because there was private finance, there were agencies, there were distribution and sub-distribution agreements. It was really diverse. And the producer was just so on top of everything, it was a real pleasure.

And then the third project I wrote down here is a TV series – it’s a three part series called Filthy Rich and Homeless which ran on SBS, just a few of those episodes. 

LEAH: Yes! I’ve watched a few of those episodes. That’s such a fascinating show. 

CAROLINE: It was fascinating. Well, I had to watch them all because I was assessing them for errors and omissions insurance.

LEAH: Of course.

CAROLINE: Not only did I find it eye-opening, I found it quite life changing because homelessness is so obvious in Sydney and you know, I’d always look the other way and walk past people. And now you think they could be anyone. There could be any reason for them to be on the street. And so I’m much more open to being a bit supportive.

And I thought it was incredible, and worth mentioning, that a TV show could have such an effect on me. At my age. 

LEAH: Oh, even at my age, I think we understand these issues a bit more, but you watch a show like that and you really are forced to understand something that you thought you had full knowledge of – when you just think oh, I really could be anyone that could have been any range of scenarios that put them there. Yeah. Really, really great series. And that’s really interesting that you worked on it. 

And I guess last one, do you have a favorite legal film or television show? 

CAROLINE: Yeah, I like that question. I like Suits, but really Suits is just a remake of the best legal show ever – which was Boston legal.

LEAH: Shaun Miller from our previous episode also loved Boston legal as well. I’ve got to get on it. 

CAROLINE: Yes, Shauny and I are very close!

LEAH: There you go. Thank you very much for talking to us today. I’ve really, you’ve actually given me so much to think about, and opened up my eyes to quite a lot of intricacies in the screen industry that I never would have thought about before. So thank you so much. 

CAROLINE: My pleasure. And thank you. 

SAMARA: You’ve been listening to the brief with FAME LSA. This episode was hosted by Leah Alysandratos, the theme song and sound was produced by Leah Alysandratos. A very big thank you to Caroline Verge for chatting with us and a special thanks to Coco Garner Davis for producing the transcript.

Thanks also to all the FAME LSA committee members and ambassadors for their support, and thanks to you for listening. If you want to hear all learn more about FAME LSA like us on Facebook and Instagram and visit our website at famelsa.com. If you’re a lawyer working in the film, art, media, publishing, or entertainment space and want to get involved with FAME, we would love to hear from you. Send us an email at general.famelsa@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s